If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. Be grateful. Count your blessings. Don’t sweat the small stuff…and it’s all small stuff. By the way, NEVER forget about the starving kids in Africa….
I could go on and on, but you get the point. Our society inundates us with messages that promote emotional suppression and false positivity. Of course no one wants a community full of Debbie Downers, but when we ignore all of those feelings, where do they go? Is it truly as simple as subbing out a negative emotion for a positive one; like returning an item to the store? If not, can we ever really be free of our negative feelings and experiences, or are we doomed to carry them around with us forever?
The good news is that we are not doomed. We have the ability to process our negative emotions in a genuine way that allows us to heal and move forward in our lives. We are not taught about mental health in school when we learn about other systems of the body. Most people don’t begin to understand these processes until they encounter intensive psychotherapy later in life. This lack of information, coupled with the persistent “mind over matter” messaging all around us, creates confusion about how to regain control over our mental health.
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines emotions as, “a complex reaction pattern, involving experiential, behavioral, and physiological elements”. These reactions are processed in the brain’s limbic system and are physically happening to us. Much like other necessary functions of the body, we cannot stop them from happening solely because they are unpleasant. On the contrary, ignoring unpleasant reactions in the body often leads to more complicated health concerns down the line.
So if false positivity and ignoring unpleasant emotions are unhealthy, then how can we avoid being stuck in a negative place? Here are three (3) quick skills that you can start practicing today that will lead you toward healthier habits of emotional expression.
- IDENTIFY THE EMOTION—Don’t re-tell yourself the whole story; there’s often little that can be done about the roles that others play in the situation. However, practice asking yourself, “What am I really feeling right now?” Are you feeling hurt? Embarrassed? Afraid? Betrayed? Is something that is happening now triggering memories of something that happened to you before? We cannot process emotions that we have not identified. It’s important to note that anger is a secondary emotion, so if you are feeling anger, challenge yourself to find the more vulnerable emotion that came first.
- DON’T PRESS PAUSE–Once you’ve identified your primary emotions, it’s time to allow yourself to feel it. Have you ever experienced being nauseous then feeling relief after vomiting? Unpleasant emotions can work in a similar way. If you’re having a good, hard cry, don’t reach for the tissues. When you’re feeling hurt, don’t immediately go out on the town to cheer yourself up. Immediately trying to suppress your emotions doesn’t allow you to move through them. Instead, commit to giving yourself the time you need to reflect on and feel your primary emotions.
- PRACTICE MAKES PROGRESS-Ignoring emotions is a habit and we don’t always realize we’re doing it. Developing a new habit of addressing things in the moment is necessary if we don’t want unpleasant emotions to pile up and overflow at inopportune times. Do you have a friend that’s always late? Do they know it bothers you (if it does) or do you usually make a joke or say nothing about it at all? Holding on to even those small irritations in life can lead to anxiety and irritability. Once it’s a habit, we often can’t identify the source of those feelings anymore. Being honest about your feelings doesn’t have to be an argument or confrontation. Communicating with the people in your life about how you feel (your vulnerable feelings, not accusations about their character) prevents resentments from forming and gives them the opportunity to demonstrate that your feelings matter to them.
Developing a new habit of healthy emotional expression will help you to move through your feelings and heal from them. If you find yourself feeling stuck in your emotions, please reach out to a mental health professional so that they can help you to navigate your emotional healing process.